Ready to be an anti-racist school? Diversifying students’ networks is a must.

By:

Feb 24, 2021

Last year, the killing of George Floyd and the inequitable spread of the coronavirus pandemic together created a moment in history that can’t be ignored. These events loudly drew attention to the systemic inequities in our nation and deep strands of racism that have long plagued America.

Our education systems aren’t immune to this reckoning.

Curriculum is one area receiving substantial attention when it comes to how racism shows up in schools. Many sources show how students’ exposure to information is carefully curated as exemplified through school textbooks that ignore black humanity in their slavery narratives to those that exclude the contributions of Mexican Americans from Texas’ history books. These issues are widespread, and school leaders are increasingly aware of the ways that racial biases are woven into the fabric of students’ curriculum and experiences. 

Many schools across the nation are looking to implement culturally-relevant and anti-racist curriculum to counter these racial biases. For example, the College Board is offering an Advanced Placement program on the African Diaspora. Students are also organizing to influence their schools to make curricular changes. And the Canopy project, cataloguing school innovations across the country, shows that 66% of school leaders report implementing culturally-relevant pedagogy. 

But while corrective efforts to diversify the materials students learn from are necessary, they are likely insufficient. Knowing about diverse experiences and perspectives isn’t enough to prepare students to engage productively with difference—and the accompanying power dynamics—in their communities. As a result, schools committed to confronting racism should be designing for diversity in students’ networks, not just their learning materials. 

Beyond curriculum: Deliberately diversifying students’ networks

Reexamining school policies, introducing new curriculum, and offering teachers training in cultural competency could expand how school communities understand and talk about diversity and equity. But among these important changes, one deserves more attention than it is currently getting in many conversations about anti-racist schools. For diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives to create inclusive environments, students need opportunities and incentives to purposefully dialogue across differences to help build their capacity for engaging with varied perspectives. 

Put simply, by more holistically tackling the social side of DEI—how students actually interact with and view others perceived as different from them—schools stand to boost students’ ability to understand, empathize, and communicate along lines of differences. To authentically build anti-racist schools, institutions must prioritize integration and alignment between curriculum, policies, teacher training, and students’ networks—or risk ringing hollow long-term.

A real-world example in action

There are some obvious challenges in taking this approach. For one, schools—and educators—have limited capacity and funding. Additionally, it’s hard to expose students to diverse perspectives in school communities that are more homogeneous racially and ethnically. So how can educators ensure their DEI efforts are deeply integrated throughout their students’ school experiences? How should schools move forward with the difficult and necessary work of becoming inclusive, anti-racist spaces? And how will educators and schools know they’ve been successful? 

Some organizations that partner with schools are showing how to build and incentivize new, diverse networks among students for relatively small costs in both educators’ time and school funds. For example, nXu is a nonprofit that partners with schools to equip youth to explore, articulate, and pursue their purpose through in-school and out-of-school programming. “Purpose—and the various related constructs—is an elemental topic that provides a great avenue through which to allow for meaningful connections,” explains Yutaka Tamura, executive director of nXu. “We have found that the best way to build connections across lines of difference is to organize students into mixed cohorts of race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic class. This enables the students to engage in deep and vulnerable conversations that allow them to explore their fundamental humanity,” says Tamura. Part of nXu’s belief is that even in a more homogenous school, there is untapped latent “diversity” (e.g. in ideas, hopes, etc.) that a purpose-driven curriculum can unlock.

Because of COVID, nXu had to move all of its programming online. Some of the strategies they’ve found for diversifying students’ networks online include (a) mixing students across classrooms, homerooms, and/or grades (yes, even online!) and (b) forging partnerships with neighboring schools. Tamura advises that, with the help of technology, these strategies can be relatively easy for schools to pursue. (See also: the Christensen Institute’s free database of technology tools and programs that help put students in touch with relationships and networks here.)

To ensure the program’s effectiveness, nXu integrates an often overlooked piece of the puzzle: metrics to drive design and change.The program holds itself accountable to its goal to foster friendships across lines of difference by asking students themselves about the relationships they are or aren’t forming and continuously iterating on their program design in service of nurturing students’ diverse relationships. For example, in a post-program survey, they ask students to agree-disagree with the following statement, “nXu has allowed me to build friendships and connections that I would not have otherwise made.” In addition, they are asked, “How often do your peers connect you with new people, places, and ideas?”

Schools’ commitments to DEI initiatives and anti-racist spaces are futile—or superficial, at best—if students only read about diverse cultures and people but don’t actually interact with them. Schools that take an integrated approach to DEI—weaving together curriculum and staff training with building and diversifying students’ relationships—will be far more effective in shaping a future that equitably serves students, and, in turn, activates them as partners alongside our education systems in facing and dismantling racism. 

Note to readers: We recognize that diversifying students’ networks is only the tip of the iceberg in cultivating inclusive environments for students, particularly those whose voices have been marginalized for so long. Dismantling racism and the connected oppressions will take a myriad of concerted efforts. We remain committed to sharing our learnings and building on this piece through future blogs. As always, please feel free to share your reactions or feedback, which also help us grow in our work.

Mahnaz Charania, PhD is a senior research fellow at the Christensen Institute. Her work focuses on studying disruptive innovations in education that amplify equitable opportunities for students to achieve social and economic mobility. In her current role, she leverages her deep expertise in measurement and evaluation to drive innovations that expand students' social capital.